Researcher Rebuked for 20-year-old Misconduct

MUNICH--The Max Planck Society, Germany's premier research organization, announced Monday that its president will issue a formal censure to neuroscientist Peter Seeburg, director of the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg, for publishing data in a 1979 paper that Seeburg has said were false.

Seeburg's censure is the latest chapter in a drawn out scientific melodrama. The University of California (UC) and biotech pioneer Genentech of South San Francisco had been locked in a battle over patent rights to engineered human growth hormone (Science, 7 May, http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/summary/284/5416/883b p. 883). Seeburg testified that he had taken DNA samples to Genentech from his previous job at UC San Francisco. He also admitted falsifying technical data in a Nature paper to cover up the origin of the samples. Prompted by this testimony, Max Planck president Hubert Markl ordered a scientific misconduct investigation.

Only after Genentech agreed to pay UC $200 million in mid-November to settle the suit could the Max Planck investigation finally conclude. While litigation was pending, UC did not answer Max Planck inquiries about whether Seeburg was entitled to take the samples, says Klaus Hahlbrock, Max Planck vice president and a member of the investigative committee. The university ultimately acknowledged that, at the time, there were no unequivocal regulations barring Seeburg from taking the samples, he says.

The German investigation therefore focused on the alleged falsified information in the 1979 Nature paper. Seeburg's testimony about data falsification was hotly contested by co-author David Goeddel, then at Genentech and now chairman of biotech company Tularik in South San Francisco. The Max Planck committee took Seeburg's admission of guilt at face value. The committee concluded, says Hahlbrock, that "a falsified description in a publication cannot be tolerated, no matter it dates back 20 years," and recommended that Seeburg be censured--a rare and rather exceptional measure. But then again, says Hahlbrock, "the whole story was rather exceptional."

Posted in Scientific Community, Europe